Time Was

Right off the bat, I must warn you that the cover blurb is misleading. So much so that it created a negative backlash on Goodreads and other online venues, which in turn engendered quite a few poor reviews for this novella. Unlike the most vocal detractors, I will not claim that the blurb is a blatant lie. That would be untrue. But it is indeed misleading if you are expecting the plot to be a romance between two gay soldiers. Tom and Ben's tale lies at the heart of this story, but it's not necessarily the primary focus of Time Was.

Due to this backlash, it appears that a lot of readers are now passing on this novella. Which is a shame, really. Don't get me wrong. I understand that certain people wanted it to be a love story featuring two gay time travelers. But this is a new work by Ian McDonald and the author has yet to disappoint me. And I'm glad to report that Time Was is another memorable read that doesn't deserve the mud thrown its way.

Here's the blurb:

A love story stitched across time and war, shaped by the power of books, and ultimately destroyed by it.

In the heart of World War II, Tom and Ben became lovers. Brought together by a secret project designed to hide British targets from German radar, the two founded a love that could not be revealed. When the project went wrong, Tom and Ben vanished into nothingness, presumed dead. Their bodies were never found.

Now the two are lost in time, hunting each other across decades, leaving clues in books of poetry and trying to make their desperate timelines overlap.

Time Was is a tale of war and quantum physics, but truth be told that's a story within the story. The main arc of the narrative has more to do with old books and the secrets they can conceal. It all begins when a book collector/vendor finds a letter in an old, seemingly worthless, book found in a dumpster. Little by little, this man becomes intrigued by these two soldiers exchanging letters, Ben Seligman and Tom Chappell. Even more so when photographic evidence shows them appearing during various armed conflicts such as WWII, the Vietnam War, and the Balkan Wars as Yougoslavia unraveled, without aging much from one picture to the other. Soon, this collector becomes obsessed with them and seeks to learn the truth behind what appears to be two time travelers. And all the clues he finds are always hidden in a copy of the same book by an unknown author, a book titled Time Was.

The main perspective is the first person narrative of the book collector/vendor who first stumbled upon Tom's letter within the pages of an unexpected dumpster find. That man is not the most likeable of narrators, which probably helped spark the backlash from fans expecting a romance between two gay guys. Not only is that man heterosexual, but he's not endearing in the least. But he keeps digging and the truth gradually unfolds. The second point of view is that of Tom Chappell and consists of flashback scenes. These sequences allow readers to find out more about his relationship with Ben and what they were both doing during World War II. It is also through his perspective that we learn that the British forces are working on a secret project whose aim is to find a way to conceal them from German troops using quantum physics. And the closer the narrator gets to the truth, the more we learn about what the British sought to accomplish at Shingle Street and what the repercussions turned out to be.

The novella format precludes any pacing issues. Weighing in at only 143 pages, I went through Time Was in no time. I was hooked from the very beginning and couldn't let go. The more the narrator discovers about Ben and Tom, the more I needed to know what would happen next. And even if Time Was isn't as satisfying as some of Ian McDonald's novel-length works, this short fiction piece still packs a powerful punch.

I often complain that certain SFF novels were longer than they should have been, but a part of me wanted this book to be bigger. In the end, however, that would have been detrimental to the story because Time Was is as long as it needs to be.

They say that good things come in small packages and this novella is a perfect example. Forget about those angry readers talking shit about this book and give Time Was a shot. You won't be disappointed! And since you can get the digital edition for as low as 3.99$ on Amazon and other online sellers, there's no reason not to get your hands on it!

The final verdict: 8/10

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